Pat Duffy Hutcheon: A Humanist Life


Pat Duffy Hutcheon was born in 1926 in rural Alberta. She became a sociologist of education, writing a major textbook in the field, and in her later years emerged as a well-known Humanist author, including The Road to Reason: Landmarks in the History of Humanist Thought (2001) and Leaving the Cave: Evolutionary Naturalism in the Sociol Scientific Thought (1996). She published an autobiography, The Lonely Trail: The Life Journey of a Freethinker (2009). She was named Humanist of the Year 2000 by the Humanist Association of Canada. She died on 4 February 2010 three months after this interview.

 My father called himself a freethinker and he had broken away from a very rigid Catholic family, Irish Duffys.  When he was a young schoolteacher he had started reading, he said a lot of things and he had made a decision that these religions weren’t for him.  My mother was one of these people who wasn’t philosophical in any way.  And she was happy to be free of her Methodist upbringing because of the rules and the social regulations, and that’s really all that mattered to her.  I wouldn’t say that she was a non-religious person it’s just that she didn’t want to live that life and she was quite happy to live with someone who was not religious. I was an unusual child in that way.  And my father did the wise thing in protecting me from getting into problems.  He told me when I started school he said don’t tell the other kids. Don’t argue with the other kids or tell them there are no Gods. It’s just like telling them there’s no Santa Claus when they’re little, he said you’ll hurt them and there’s no need to.  So I went by that rule even as I got older among my friends.  I just stayed away from that topic of religion.

We spent a number of years on a farm. In the very worst of the years that you could be on a farm for the drought and didn’t make a living, almost starved in fact.  But the good thing about it was our little school which was called Lonely Trail, all the people going to it were a mixture of immigrants from different countries and a mixture of religions I assume. There were no churches in the area and no one went to any church and religion was something that in that area was not discussed at all.  That was not the norm at all, but it was in probably a lot of these little drought-stricken areas where they couldn’t afford churches. And so it was just something that didn’t come into my upbringing in those years.

I got into junior high when we had to move back to town to live with my grandmother [in] the village of Oyen because the farm that we were living [on] got no rain whatsoever and we could raise nothing on the farm and we were half-starved.  If it hadn’t been by the way for the eastern Canadian provinces sending free food out… Every so often they would send a load of apples and big round cheeses from Quebec and each province, Maritimes sent some fruit and Newfoundland sent us cured or smoked fish, and actually that’s what we survived on.  — Very little [is] known by anyone how good the eastern provinces were to the starving westerners.

My father managed to find a job and he was actually a very skilled mechanic and he got us moved into a rented house.  All my friends went to churches and they would always ask me why I didn’t go and if I wanted to go with them.  And I would just say well I don’t believe in those things so I don’t have any need but tried not to argue.  There were a lot of fighting going on in our family.  My mother and dad didn’t really get along at all.  And she had a very hot temper, so there was a lot of fighting on her side and then there were among the children.  And I was a middle child in a large family and I was kinda the peacemaker.  And so I think I leaned over backwards not to get into arguments with people or things that you couldn’t do anything about. I had to go after working. Our family had to split up and I had to try to find a job from grade 9 on try to find a job.  Worked my way through high school by working as a house helper, home helper and then getting to school and getting my board and room that way.  So that’s how I tried to get my high school and I didn’t have much time to worry about other issues [laughs] other than getting fed.

After I finally completed I dropped out for a year and I just I had to because of things that happened to me.  I was disillusioned with teachers and with school.  I dropped out.  Well actually I had one class taken from me − the credit of it, a vital class course, because I hadn’t been there enough days. I had worked on a farm in the fall always and gone to school late in October.  And because of that  I had a course which I had had honours in taken away from me and I became so disillusioned that I quit school for a year and just worked full time in several places and then got back to school again.  I decided to go and live with my grandmother again in Oyen and got back to school and had a wonderful grade 12. I had won an award in grade 9 in this little Oyen school.  The Governor General’s Award it was called.  After that I had won a very rare scholarship in Canada at the time – Daughters of the Empire scholarship  [from the]  International Order of Daughters of the Empire.  I got one year at the university that way. In those days women only had the choice of nursing or secretary work or teaching.  I chose to be a teacher and I took the one year war emergency course, it was just at the end of the war.  I got out to teach after one year. I taught in a little one room school it was something like the Lonely Trail that we had gone to.  And not too far from there, about 30 miles or so from there almost on the Saskatchewan border.  And I taught in as I say one room school and found teaching was just wonderful.  It was my thing.  It was very difficult [laughs]. I tell you, the things that happened.  And they had no teacher all through the war years.  You can imagine what the discipline problem was. Found that I was good at discipline for some reason.  I had never known.  Funny how things you know just come out of you that you don’t know about yourself.

I would have loved to have gone right back to university and gotten a degree in education, but I had to work.  But then I made what at the time was a terrible mistake.  After teaching a couple of years they moved me into the little town school because they had a teacher there who could not discipline his class at all and they needed someone who knew how to discipline and they made me go in there.  The school inspector did.  And so I boarded then with a very nice couple.  But she had a brother who’d just returned from the war and he had horrible problems and nowadays of course he woulda been treated. In those days it wasn’t recognised at all.  And I got just kinda trapped.  I was feeling so sorry for him and I got told — Before I knew what was happening I was engaged to him because everyone said ‘well you can’t turn away from him now cause he’s counting on you’ and all of this and ‘he’s got so many problems’.  And I knew it was a terrible thing for me to do for my part but I got trapped and when you’re that age you do some stupid things.  So I got into this marriage and he lived with his father. Actually the farm was quite good because it was on land that was quite good.  And so I became a farmer’s wife and then I realised that his problems were much deeper than I’d realised.  And abuse was one of his problems.  Abusing other people and especially women [laughs].  So so I had a very hard life there.

I had one son then. By the time my son was 10 years, going into grade 6 I think it was,  I had made plans kinda gradually [to] try to escape the situation. Actually, when I found that he was abusing my son somewhat too, I then made plans and got a position in the city of Calgary.  So because of these important awards [I had won], I found it very easy to get a position in a junior high school in Calgary.  So then I just told my husband that Tommy and I were going into Calgary and he’s starting grade 6 and he could come in the winters if he wanted when he wasn’t doing farm work.  We did that for a few years until I realised the problem of his abusing our son was becoming too great. I went to get help actually to the police one time because hbecause of the abuse, and what the policeman said was ‘you just go on home and learn to behave yourself’.  That was what it was like in those days.  That was the late 50s and then around 1960.  So I did finally get a separation.  A legal separation [I] managed to get on the advice of some friends and once I had that then everything changed.  My husband, he had been in the military police and maybe it was because it was the law he just stayed away from us then because he had been ordered to.  So everything settled down then.  My escape had worked [laughs].

I loved the teaching.  All the time when I was teaching in high school I was also studying correspondence courses and going to summer schools sometimes.  And so I had everything but the 1 year — It was 1 year of actually being at a university was required to get your degree.  And then I won a wonderful master teacher’s award which was a great big surprise.  It was a Canada council master teacher’s award.  Apparently only a few in the whole country each year are awarded.  That was a great surprise to me and that gave me a scholarship, I forget how much money, but also a year of university.  A year off from work and I can go to university.  And so I finished I got my B.Ed. degree.  Bachelor of Education.  And then I was talked into trying to get into the masters programme at the University of Calgary.  I had a wonderful professor who advised me on things like that. And I chose to get a masters in sociology and anthropology, they were together at the time.   And eventually I managed to get my masters.  And then during the — I took a 2 year programme in 1 year.  I took 2 summer sessions so I had to just take a year off work.  And one of the professors had been hired by a new university branch of the University of Saskatchewan, and he hired me then to — Actually that was when I had 3 choices.  I had a fellowship to Yale and a fellowship to Berkeley and then this job offer.  I asked if the Yale University would hold the fellowship and they said they would hold it for 3 years.   So my son and I then moved [in the fall of 1964] to Regina and that was a wonderful move and wonderful place to teach I found. Very fortunate person I was, then.

I enjoyed the city [of Regina] and I enjoyed being part of this new university setting and meeting all the interesting people with from a variety of backgrounds.  In fact one of my best friends was a man who was trained for the priesthood, the Catholic priesthood.  He decided to go into education but he was still very much a Catholic in his beliefs. We loved talking philosophy, arguing, but we soon got to the point where we would not discuss religion because I told him one day there’s no point to it cause you believe.  They have this ultimate belief that there’s no way that I can argue against it.  ‘There’s no evidence or anything that I could produce that would alter your belief and so there’s no point in it.’ So we quit arguing on that level [laughs]. I always just said I don’t believe in any gods.  There are lots of them all through history that have been believed in and supposedly their rules followed. I said I just don’t believe in gods and myths of all kinds. It was actually when I was getting my masters that one of my professors said to me you know ‘People who believe as you do should join the Unitarian fellowship.’ And I had never heard of them.  And so I did. When we moved to Regina, not very long after I began teaching there, I was invited to speak on the Vietnam war at the Unitarian fellowship there.  And so I went.  In those days the Unitarians were very Humanist and so I spoke to them and I was opposed to the Vietnam war,  and I think most of them agreed with me, I got quite a response from them.  But there was one man there who argued with me a lot.  He didn’t argue on the Vietnam war but he raised the issue of the social sciences and how unscientific they were.  And he thought I think that I would really be a you know argue with him on that.  And to his utter surprise I agreed with him.  This was I said this has been my problem I’ve been trying to make them more scientific inclined.  And so we had the great discussion and eventually this man became my second husband.  He was the Scottish fellow that eventually became my second husband.  And I got the first — I got the first uncontested divorce in Alberta at the time that I finally got it.

I taught [at Regina] for the 3 years before I was allowed to take a year off.  2 years actually off and go to Yale.  And then I went to Yale. I found that the man who was responsible really for my fellowship a wonderful professor there.  He had gone on leave and so I had to get a substitute one and as my adviser.  And I did and the first time I went in to see this professor he let me know very clearly that I would not get a doctorate from Yale if I didn’t sleep with him.  This was only a couple of years after they first allowed women into Yale at all.  And so I was just astounded. No professor in Canada had ever suggested such a thing.  And then the man went onto say: ‘don’t look so surprised,’ he said, ‘you can’t tell me that someone with your poor background from Canada got to where you are with all the marks you’ve got without having slept with a whole lot of professors’.  So that tells you something about the sexism of the day in North America.  That was ‘68, the late 60s.

It propelled me back to Regina.  I just quit.  I left.  Gave up everything that I had worked for in all those years cause I knew there was no hope for me.  I would not do such a thing.  I hated to leave.  You know I’d looked forward to this so much being at Yale.  I did tell a group of young men that used to kind of get together with there cause there’s very few females in masters or doctoral level courses.  I said: ‘I want you to promise me one thing.  When you are a person in power in a university somewhere, and you will be with a Yale doctorate, promise me that you will never allow this kind of thing to happen.  And they said they would, they all promised.’  So I’ve wondered ever since whether they remained true to their word.


Pat married and with her husband Sandy travelled first to work in Australia, then at Vancouver where she taught att University of British Columbia.


Religion didn’t really come into [it]. My life was too busy. And all the time I mustn’t forget we were very active in the Unitarian church. They called it just a centre at first when they moved here [to Vancouver], and eventually they changed the name to church because they found they couldn’t get the tax benefits it was you know that the churches got. That was very ironic.  And both of us considered, just because of the name, both of us considered leaving it because before it had been Unitarian fellowships and they were all Humanist.  And in fact the Unitarians here too were very Humanist in those days.  But one of my volunteer jobs was I was asked to serve on the Unitarian Universalists fellowship, the organisation that decided who among the graduates who had applied to be ministers would be accepted for all of North America.  And the meeting places were in Boston and Chicago and on the west coast, San Francisco I believe it was.  And so I just thought that would be interesting but I found as the years went on and I was serving on the committee more and more, they were losing the Humanism and moving into various types of spiritual beliefs.  It got to the point where Sandy and I became less and less interested in attending this church because, for one thing I had felt very uncomfortable when we first did start here but it was what we needed.  There was no organisation then really that provided fellowship which was what we both needed coming to a new place and the Unitarians were very good that way.  But eventually the BC Humanists developed and became an organisation so we spent most of our time then with Humanists.  We were quite active in the BC Humanists in those days.

[The Unitarian service] when we were part of it, they would sing but the hymns were almost all the words changed, altered to make them Humanist.  So they were words that I enjoyed very much and I enjoyed singing, I liked singing.  And so there would be these songs and the minister would [make] more of a speech that you would get, rather than a homily from the front.  And people were asked to participate a lot, and a lot of discussion groups.  And we had a Humanist discussion group that met every Sunday right after the service. But something about the lining up and going into a building like a church-like building bothered me very much at the beginning. But I realised in our coming here that we did need to make friends and there was no other organisation that was available.  And I always realise as a sociologist that that was one of the big features of the churches and why they had become so powerful.

I always in my studies right from the beginning in sociology I was Humanist.  I was very interested in being scientific rather than Marxist and all the other ideologies that entered into the social sciences.  And so the scientific aspect was always very important to me all my life and to me that’s what Humanism is about, it’s looking at the world in a scientific way.  My approach to evolution is like Dawkins’.  I see the whole world evolving always and the human species was just one of the many species evolving.  I see a social a cultural evolution going on.  The culture is part of the environment just as the physical is and it is the feedback from the environment that alters the biological evolution.  And at the same time of course the cultural evolution is being altered always by feedback around it and there is a three-way feedback among these.  And so that if you understand evolution and I see Humanism is based on evolution very much and so that’s what makes it scientific.  And you can’t really understand evolution and believe in it without being a scientist and being scientific in your approach to everything.  I never was a dualist, that is two different worlds, the world of the spirit and mind and whatever and then the physical world.  I don’t think that is the world; it’s all one.  In one of my books, I think Leaving the Cave book, I trace this evolution of various religious beliefs and then the evolution beyond that, to a belief in the way the world works.  It’s really all about the way the world works.  I always used to say to my students, ‘why’ isn’t the question to ask, it’s ‘how come’.  You know the good old farm question how come.  How did this come around?

I was very particular about not teaching belief systems or questioning the students’ belief system but if they asked me a direct question I would answer it honestly always about anything that pertained in that area.  But I used to have students often very intrigued and would come to my office and ask me questions, so I did a lot of discussing.  In fact I used to teach students of the priesthood in sociology classes, and I found many of them really didn’t believe in what they were gonna have to spout for the rest of their lives.  It didn’t make sense to them and they would tell me things like this.  I found this quite sad.  Worrisome.

I think that Humanism should be better known because I always had a lot of students asking me what Humanism is, they’d never heard of it.  And I think it’s not well enough known at all.  We’ve been too reluctant to broadcast it, in that we don’t want to be imitating religions, and also we don’t want to be accused of challenging religion. That’s why I’m very happy with what Richard Dawkins is doing today.  I would never have been able to do it not in the position or probably not having the courage to do it, but I just really respect Dawkins not just as a person, a very nice person, but as what he’s doing about making Humanism more well known. Those who are led to it by one way or another I think that they believe it is a total challenge and it is a total belief system like what they’re leaving.  I think maybe they have that feeling when they’re first getting into it. We have to start with an axiom that knowledge is not absolute; it all depends on evidence and has to follow the evidence − alters as the evidence that is available to the human mind changes.

We discuss a lot but they’re not really adamant arguments because Humanism doesn’t tend to attract people who feel that way about things. Arguments about mysticism, Humanists who are mystics as well.  But I always say it’s fine as long as you don’t believe in that this mystical feeling that you have is a source of knowledge.  If it’s just a source of feeling and it makes you feel good, that’s fine, I wouldn’t challenge that at all.  But if you are getting flashes of absolute knowledge from these mystical experiences then that’s a different thing altogether that makes you dangerous.  I am very much in favour of getting more Humanism into schools.  With the Unitarians I used to teach Sunday school and in fact I developed a programme for the junior high level of the Sunday school courses.  The 1st year started with a study of all religions and belief systems and then the 2nd year they would go into the history of Unitarianism where it came from and so on, and then the 3rd year would be about Humanism.

I have to tell you the most shocking thing that ever happened to me. I have a granddaughter, very bright and lovely girl who got her first degree in biology, in fact now she’s a research biologist down in the States, but she got her BA in biology.  I asked her about how much evolution is being taught there and this is maybe 15 years ago and she sai: ‘oh just that one course on evolution and they brought in a creationist and an evolutionist to teach it.’  I was really horrified. I guess I looked and I said something ‘that is just terrible’.  And she said ‘oh nana you are you are so intolerant, nana.  You are so intolerant [laughs].’  Said I don’t think this is anything to do with tolerance; this is supposed to be a biology class, biology is about evolution.  But so you see that that is what is still going on in a lot of places in Canada.  So Canada’s still not really taking a firm stand on these things.

How wonderful my Humanist friends have been.  Very little I can do for myself now.  I couldn’t remain independent without my good friends.  And the Hardies live across the water, you know Glenn and Lorraine.  Once a month they either take me over to Safeway’s or if I’m not well get my list. Glenn pushes my cart and picks up everything and loads it into my car and does everything for me.  And they do this unquestioning every month.  My husband was ill for about 4 years as his health deteriorated and I kept him at home and looked after him right to the end.  I remember one day I was just exhausted, my health was deteriorating with the fulltime care, but I did want Sandy to die at home here and he did.  And they came and they brought over a rich chocolate cake for as a treat.  And I had been very careful.  He had heart problems [and] had had several strokes.  And I had been watching his diet for years cause he had been raised on a very rich Scottish diet [laughs].  So they brought this rich chocolate cake, and then I remember thinking ‘it’s time that he had anything he wanted, anything at all he wanted, it doesn’t matter a bit now.’  And so I was happy to have him have the cake.  Belle was the only person who had ever visited who insisted that I not do anything, that I sit down.  And then she fixed the cake and everything and she sat beside him right on the chesterfield there beside Sandy and she fed him the cake.  And I thought that seems like a little thing, but it was such a big thing for me at the time and for him he loved it too.  So that was very Humanist.  The Humanists have really been very faithful friends, so I think to me my personal experience is that they are very Humanist in that sense of the word.


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